Antetokounmpo remained expressionless despite the embarrassing sequence in the second quarter, but it seemed to stir something inside him. He responded with a string of mesmerizing plays over the ensuing minutes, effectively putting the Wizards out of their misery before halftime in a 131-115 victory that kept the Bucks (38-13) atop the league standings.
“Giannis makes their team go. Like every great player, he can dominate the game in so many ways,” Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said.
Antetokounmpo finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds, including 24 points in the first half, when Washington (22-30) simply had no defensive answer and Milwaukee put up 73 points. Antetokounmpo relentlessly attacked the lane and hit 12 free throws in the first two quarters alone — the Wizards shot just seven — and added nine points in the final 3:13 of the first half as the Bucks went into intermission with a 23-point lead. It was that stretch that defined this latest gem by Antetokounmpo, which clearly left his opponents perplexed afterward.
“He’s a very talented, very physically gifted guy, and he can get in the paint very easily,” Wizards guard Tomas Satoransky said of Antetokounmpo, who went 10 for 20 from the field and connected on all 17 of his free throw attempts.
It didn’t matter who Washington threw at Antetokounmpo; he muscled his way past, through and around forwards Jeff Green and Trevor Ariza for most of the night, especially late in the pivotal second quarter. Green had blocked Antetokounmpo’s shot and had finished a dunk at the other end to pull Washington within 12. Antetokounmpo air-balled a three-pointer on the next possession, sending the home crowd into a brief frenzy.
But the all-star answered by barreling into the lane time and time again, using his upper body strength and long, powerful strides to get to the rim whenever he wanted. He followed with a pair of free throws after drawing a hard foul in transition and on the possession, he posted up Ariza and shouldered his way through the Wizards’ weakside help for a powerful two-handed dunk. He was also fouled on the play, and he finished the three-point sequence to extend the Bucks’ lead to 19. Just nine seconds later, he finished an acrobatic layup in transition after a Wizards turnover.
“One split-second mistake,” Brooks said, “and he can find you and hurt you.
Antetokounmpo did not play in the season’s first meeting between the teams Jan. 11 , which the Wizards won, 113-106. But it was clear that this version of the Bucks were a much different animal. The Bucks are a contender to win the Eastern Conference because of the talent they have assembled around Antetokounmpo: All-star Khris Middleton hit four three-pointers and finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Big man Brook Lopez also gave the Wizards fits, scoring 21 points to go with six rebounds. Milwaukee shot 50 percent from the field and drained 17 three-pointers.
“They spread you out, and [Antetokounmpo] is really good. He’s strong,” Brooks said. “We tried to go single-coverage, and he battles you in, backs you in. You double him, he passes over it and you have to scramble. All of our scrambles were a little late.”
But every time Washington, which received 24 points from guard Bradley Beal, clawed back into the game, Antetokounmpo delivered a counterpunch. Antetokounmpo was mostly quiet in the third quarter as Washington pulled within 15 and resuscitated a quiet crowd.
“We would have been all right if we hadn’t been down by 30. It’s tough to come back from 30 in one half,” Beal said.
Antetokounmpo made another series of memorable plays in the fourth quarter, including an off-balance finish after dribbling the length of the floor in transition. He was fouled on that basket, too, finishing the three-point play, and with 5:45 remaining he triggered a response from the home crowd one last time with a reverse layup to give the Bucks a 21-point lead. He took a seat on the bench soon thereafter, his night’s work over after 33 minutes.
“When he was out of the game,” Brooks said, “I thought we were pretty good.”